Gateway Sun

It’s called the Firefly.

And the Gateway Sun has teamed with a person who has professional investigation skills to find out if the flawed technology that makes up the Firefly has played any kind of role in the Gateway CDD’s problem-filled water meter project.

The Firefly is a piece of equipment called a Meter Interface Unit (MIU) which transmits data from water meters to awaiting data stations so that cities and towns no longer have to send people out to manually record meter readings to generate water bills.

The Firefly came to our attention through Google searches, due to spectacular failure rates all over the country that were covered by local publications.

Bunk Data Disaster: City has loose grasp on flawed meter-reading devicesSanta Fe Reporter, April 8, 2015.

Water meter readers are $750K bustNogales International, November 18, 2014.

Lawsuit alleges Water District hid cost of failed water meter projectLas Vegas Sun, March 31, 2015.

All articles that explain how massive failure rates of Firefly units were causing incorrect water bills for their residents.

But Firefly MIUs weren’t installed throughout Gateway. The contractors installed the Stealth Reader MIU from Zenner Performance Meters.

So what’s the connection?

The Firefly was produced by a company that went bankrupt named Datamatic, who were based in Texas.

April 15, 2015 … Hanford, California… the Hanford Sentinel: In August 2014, [Deputy Public Works Director John] Doyel told the Hanford City Council that about 4,000 of the [Firefly] transmitters were not working. The council approved a $357,000 contract with Zenner Performance, which bought Datamatic out of bankruptcy, to maintain the working meters and replace the deficient equipment.

It is possible that Zenner now owns the Firefly.

January 16, 2015 … Padre Dam Municipal Water District in Santee, California … RFP document: District staff has worked to keep the system operational by replacing batteries in the MIUs and replacing defective MIUs with Zenner Stealth Reader MIUs, which are backward compatible with the Datamatic system.

And, lo and behold, the two systems are compatible.

So what our investigation team wants to know is whether Zenner utilizes some of the same technology from the Firefly in the Stealth Reader.

Did both Datamatic and Zenner buy parts (even unknowingly) from the same suppliers to construct their respective units? Is the MIU what caused some of the 1,200 water meter problems out of 6,400 meters that the GSCDD reported?

We do not know.

But we have acquired a never-used Firefly unit, and we wrote to the GSCDD on Monday all but demanding they hand over a Stealth Reader.

We will take apart both units and compare the internal components.

The reason we focused on the MIU is because water meters themselves are simplistic. In fact, they’re too simplistic to be failing at an over 20% rate. But the MIU is more complicated and as we’ve just noted at least one brand of MIU is causing problems all over America.

I don’t think anything was done with malicious intent here. I’ve been told the President of Zenner USA was in Gateway last week to lend support and try and help resolve the issues. If Zenner’s equipment is fine then a lot of noise has been made and their company name got dragged through the mud unfairly and for no reason.

And speaking of dragging people’s names through the mud, it is curious to me that the top three GSCDD individuals who were directly responsible for the water meter replacement project are all gone.

In the time since the problems started to show up, the former District Manager, Operations Manager and Utilities Manager have all quit their jobs and left the GSCDD. Their names are being omitted from this article to avoid people performing Google searches in the future and linking their names to this mess.

Also notable, the district’s former billing specialist, who was in charge of compiling the reports of the project’s problems, also abruptly quit her job in disgust earlier this year.

We received an email on April 29, 2016 urging us to find and interview the former billing specialist, suggesting there was a “cover-up”.

We haven’t found any evidence of a cover-up. Yet.

The Board of Supervisors aren’t entirely blameless here, either. They approved the project contract with full knowledge that there was a conflict of interest involving the GSCDD’s district management firm, Severn Trent. The water meter replacement project contract was awarded to a company named Fortiline, who bought the Zenner water meters, the Stealth Reader MIUs, and subcontracted the installation work to a subsidiary of Severn Trent.

So in essence, Severn Trent was overseeing Severn Trent, albeit with layers in between. As we have previously written, we believe the reason this was approved by the board was because this set-up allowed the residents to save $377,000.

It’s entirely possible that we’ll crack open the Firefly and the Stealth Reader and find no similar components at all. But given their compatibility it’s also possible we’ll discover that Zenner took the Firefly as-is and repackaged it as the Stealth Reader. If we had to guess, the answer will be somewhere in between.

But that’s what our investigation intends to find out.

Stay tuned.

About Jeff Kuntz

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Editor of the Gateway Sun and owner of restaurant delivery service Florida Food Runner.

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